'Suddenly the idea of putting something dead inside my body didn't feel right': The butcher who turned vegan overnight

4 February 2019

Sgaia's Vegan Meats is one of a growing crop of cruelty-free companies branding their products as a new type of meat. Hazel Sheffield reports.

Brian Kavanagh had been a butcher in Glasgow for more than 20 years when one night, everything changed.

His wife, a committed vegan, showed him the film Earthlings, a 2005 documentary narrated by Joaquin Phoenix about the suffering endured by animals at factory farms and research labs. 

"The next morning I went into work and nothing felt right," Kavanagh says.

"Suddenly the idea of putting something dead inside my body didn't feel right."

Kavanagh was working as a manager on the meat counter at Morrisons. He had a young family and bills to pay. He kept his feelings to himself. But going into work became harder each day.

Since 2017, Kavanagh has been working with the firm at its Glasgow base, producing vegan meat for its suppliers and working on new recipes to meet demand. "I am a lot happier – it's like night and day," Kavanagh says. 

Sgaia's is one of a rising number of food manufacturers branding their products not as vegan alternatives, but as a radical new type of meat. The size of the market for alternatives is still tiny compared with the global meat market, but there are signs the meat industry is watching closely. 

In the US, the beef industry has filed a petition to exclude non-animal products from the definition of meat, while the French have passed a law banning vegetarian companies from calling their products sausages, mince or bacon. 

When Sean Monson, the producer of Earthlings, co-produced another film about animal rights abuses in 2018 called Dominion, groups in the meat sector reacted angrily. Patrick Hutchinson, the chief executive of the Australian Meat Industry Council, said the film was an "upsetting" representation of the industry. "What the film shows is not representative of the practices of the wider industry," Hutchinson says. "The vast majority of their employees are deeply committed to ensuring the most humane experience possible for animals."

But Kavanagh says that even as a butcher, he was shielded from the worst practices in the industry. He got into the trade at 16 after seeing a job with a family-run shop advertised at the job centre. "When the first meat van came in, it had the first quarter of a pig with the head still on. I remember thinking I was going to throw up, but you just kind of get used to it," he says. He stayed with the family butcher and moved on to Morrisons when it closed down, clocking 20 years in the trade. 

At Sgaia's, Kavanagh is in charge of running the kitchen, keeping up with orders and experimenting with new recipes. He has just developed a square sausage recipe using similar spices he used to use in meat sausages, but switching out the animal protein for gluten and soy. 

Next, the company is working on vegan black pudding to add to its growing range of vegan burgers, bacon, pepperoni slices and even steak. "It's been interesting to use my knowledge for something different," he says. "The meat all gets sliced the same way in a meat slicer, which I have been using for more than a decade, and after all that practise with sausages, I am pretty fast with a knife."

Founders Masin and Casotto, who both have Italian heritage, started making vegan meat from their home kitchen in Wales in 2013. "We're really into making food," Masin says. "After we turned vegan we tried to make salamino for our pizza, which is a kind of ham, and then it became more and more like a challenge to research the way these meats are cured and stored." 

The business partners started to sell their products at festivals and markets, which led to enquiries from shops and cafes. Masin still remembers the panic when they got the first 14 orders through their website, before they knew how to pack the products and ship them out. "I was studying at university at the time and Aberto called me and said, 'We can't do this, it's too much.'"

After sell-out appearances at vegan festivals, Sgaia's moved to Glasgow where it has been supported by a small business growth grant from Paisley Council to take on a catering kitchen and office space. In January, the company sold 5,000 units and 500kg of fake meat products through a handful of ethical suppliers, including Suma, Marigold Health Foods and Greencity Wholefoods, and the company website, which reads: "We don't make fake meats: they are real, just vegan."

Many vegan meat or food technology companies are trying to get their products stocked in the meat aisles at supermarkets, where environmentally-conscious customers will be confronted with the dilemma of which product to buy. In the US, Beyond Meat has created a burger made principally of yellow pea protein that mimics the texture and taste of meat, with the intention that supermarkets sell the product alongside animal protein. In July, Sainsbury's trialled stocking plant-based products in refrigerators alongside slaughtered meat. 

Masin says the barrier for smaller competitors such as Sgaia's is not where plant-based products are stocked, but how hard it is to comply with complex safety rules and to produce at scale. "We've been contacted by the major retailers, but because we're so small it's difficult for them to work with us," Masin says. "When the quantity is there, we will look at it."

After two decades in the meat industry, Kavanagh is enjoying working with a much smaller company. He mostly keeps his veganism to himself, apart from when he is manning the pop-up kitchen at vegan festivals, where customers are amazed by his butcher past: "If you're working for a supermarket, it's all about profits, basically – whereas this is about making a difference."

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